Navicular syndrome is a diagnosis no horse owner likes to hear, and though it can be quite devastating in some cases, the good news is that navicular can be managed; it all comes down to proper hoof care, good horse management practices, and nutrition.
What is Navicular Syndrome Exactly?
Navicular syndrome can occur in one limb, but it most commonly affects both front feet. To get an idea of where the problem originates, here’s a little anatomy inside the hoof: the navicular bone is a small, flattened bone situated directly behind the coffin joint. It’s attached to the coffin bone by the impar ligament and to the pastern joint by the suspensory ligaments. The deep digital flexor tendon (DDFT) runs over the lower surface of the navicular bone, and between the DDFT and the navicular bone is a small pocket of fluid known as the navicular bursa. Directly beneath the navicular bone is the digital cushion.
While navicular syndrome was once blamed on remodeling of the navicular bone, researchers now believe the syndrome may involve any of the above mentioned structures in the foot. For example, the horse may have damage in the navicular bursa, DDFT, collateral ligament, or the coffin joint and it may still be referred to as ‘navicular syndrome’.
Diagnosing and Managing Navicular Syndrome
Navicular is often suspected when a horse displays lameness in both front feet, (especially when lunged in a circle or moving over hard ground), shows pain in the back of the hoof, moves with a shortened stride, and/or has radiographic changes to the navicular bone. It appears to be more common in horses with poor hoof conformation (or poor trimming/shoeing practices) related to long toes and low heels. Due to pain in the back of the foot, navicular horses will often have toe-first landings rather than the desired heel first landings.
When it comes to hoof care for navicular horses, there are two main schools of thought: one focuses on using corrective shoeing like egg bars, while the other uses a series of barefoot trims to gradually shorten both the toe and heel and get the frog and digital cushion functional again. Using hoof boots and pads can be beneficial in the latter process as well. We recommend finding a good barefoot hoof care practitioner and going the barefoot route!
Nutrition and weight management is also important for horses with navicular syndrome as excess weight adds more strain on the musculoskeletal system and hooves. Vitamins and minerals play a critical role in hoof health, so supplementing with something like Icelandic Organic Kelp can ensure those needs are being met.
Additionally, anti-inflammatory and pain relieving products like Herbiflex or Su-Per Glucosamine powder may be beneficial as well. For acute pain relief, we recommend Bjute instead of phenylbutazone, which causes GI distress if given for an extended period of time.
Though it may be tempting to keep a navicular horse stalled, turnout is best not only for exercise, but to also get the horse using the back of his feet again (assuming proper hoof care measures have been taken).